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Dustin Putman

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Fright Night  (2011)
3 Stars
Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Imogen Poots, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Tennant, Toni Collette, Dave Franco, Reid Ewing, Emily Montague, Sandra Vergara, Will Denton, Grace Phipps, Chelsea Tavares, Lisa Loeb, Chris Sarandon.
2011 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for bloody violence and language including some sexual references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 18, 2011.
Special Note: Opening on the same weekend as the shoddily post-converted "Conan the Barbarian," one of the most ugly, dim, unpronounced, ineffective 3-D presentations to date, "Fright Night" stands as the direct opposite in a lot of ways. Fright Night 3-D3-D is gimmicky by its very nature (and almost universally unnecessary), but if Hollywood feels the need to turn to it, this is how it should be done. "Fright Night" was shot with 3-D cameras—often a plus—and the image is bright enough to withstand the slight dimming that comes with wearing what amounts to sunglasses in a theater. In this film, the multiple dimensions are used well, bringing depth and space to the scenes and even providing a few eye-flinching moments where objects (e.g., a paint can, a vamp hand, blood, burning embers) feel like they're actually bursting out of the screen. Did "Fright Night" need to be in 3-D to begin with? Not at all. As someone who is highly critical of the format, however, I must give credit where credit is due. Insofar as it can be, the 3-D here is a success.

In 2011, remakes are released in multiplexes what seems like every week. The formula for making them a success has not been perfected, however. Most either wander too far away from what made the original so special, or adhere so closely to the source that there is no identity left to carve for itself. Whatever the case, the vast majority of modern reduxes only serve to prove how much better the material was handled the first time around, and how needless—even detrimental—they are as contributions to cinema. Based on the 1985 cult hit of the same name, "Fright Night" is the rare remake that gets things exactly right, tweaking the setting, the background details, and the era while staying true to the spirit and soul that made the first film worth updating to begin with. Retaining the same basic story, characters, and tricky tone—a horror film that takes itself seriously without losing sight of its sly, intermittently campy sense of humor—director Craig Gillespie (2007's "Mr. Woodcock") and screenwriter Marti Noxon (2011's "I Am Number Four") ensure that the end result is a tribute to its forefather, yes, but also a film that isn't afraid to take chances and have its own voice.

High school senior Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) lives with single realtor mom Jane (Toni Collette) in an idyllic suburban housing development on the outskirts of Las Vegas. He's got a vivacious girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and hasn't yet begun to regret trading in his nerdier childhood friends, like Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Adam (Will Denton), for more popular douchebags Mark (Dave Franco) and Ben (Reid Ewing). When Adam and his family go missing, just the latest in a long line of strange disappearances in the community, Ed seeks Charley's help, warning him that his new next-door neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is secretly a vampire. When Ed vanishes soon after, Charley plays detective and discovers there's some validity to what he was saying. With Jerry quickly catching on to what Charley knows—it doesn't help that he's caught sneaking around his house and attempting to help still-alive latest victim Doris (Emily Montague) escape—and the authorities no help—"The last time I called the cops [on Jerry], they damn near went to Chili's together"—Charley, Amy, and mother Jane are suddenly tops on Jerry's hit list. With few options left, Charley seeks the aid of gothic, leather-clad magician of the occult Peter Vincent (David Tennant). The host of "Fright Night," a popular show set up at the Strip's Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the real Peter turns out to be more coward than vampire-slaying stud. Nonetheless, he holds an important personal connection to the bloodsuckers and could be just the help Charley needs in order to survive the scariest night of his life.

"Fright Night" is indisputably a remake for anyone familiar with the original, but it's also far from a lackadaisical, "take-the-money-and-run" retread. Director Craig Gillespie keeps his tongue firmly in cheek, but he also avoids mocking or making light of the danger Charley and his loved ones find themselves in. The world he sets up grabs one's attention immediately, its specific sense of place within an attractive suburban sprawl surrounded by sand, the neon lights of Vegas glittering on the horizon, infinitely more imaginative and eye-catching than overused, generic Los Angeles/New York locales. The location is pretty, but also desolate, a lonesome drive through the desert on one's way to Sin City enough to get a person killed—or bitten. With few of the residents realizing it, their lives are in jeopardy. Not even Ed, who is privy to the situation at hand, is immune to Jerry's wrath, an unmistakably sensuous neck-gouging beneath the water of a swimming pool a gruesome twist on the usual underwater make-out session seen so frequently in the land of movies.

Charley is not instantly ingratiating as a protagonist, primarily because of the knowledge that he has sold himself out to hang with the cool kids, but he is intelligent and conscionable. He knows he's done former best friend Ed wrong, but by then Ed—the true, living-and-breathing Ed—is long gone and it's too late to apologize for the wrongheaded decisions he's made. Wisely, the film only spends as much time as necessary on Charley's attempts to convince those around him that Jerry is a vampire—in some cases, he doesn't even bother since he knows how fantastical and out-there it sounds—then expediently raises the pace, the stakes, and the action. Character is not sacrificed for cheap scares and gore, either—even if it does get rather bloody at times—the writing snappy and sneakily empathetic amidst the carnage on display. Expertly woven set-pieces of suspense are particular standouts, from a cat-and-mouse game that finds Charley and Doris hiding from Jerry as they try to make it to an exit, to a nighttime car chase between man and vamp that outdoes itself in tension, stunts, and innovative camerawork by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (2010's "Eclipse").

The ensemble, also a notch above the norm for a remake to a lesser-known '80s item, are dedicated and inspired, never looking like they're simply phoning it in for a paycheck. Anton Yelchin (2011's "The Beaver") and Imogen Poots (2007's "28 Weeks Later") are solid as lead hero and heroine Charley and Amy, reliable anchors if not terribly tested on what they're capable of. The fun is in the more colorful villainous and supporting roles. As Jerry, Colin Farrell (2011's "Horrible Bosses") isn't physically intimidating—he looks to be about the same height as Yelchin—but he exudes such confidence and power, such assuredness to his own abilities at smoldering while looking like he could rip your throat out at any second, that it makes no difference how tall or bulky he is. Farrell is an excellent choice to supersede the part previously taken by Chris Sarandon (who shows up in a neat cameo).

David Tennant (2005's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") delectably reinvents Roddy McDowell's more meek, mild horror theater host Peter Vincent as a Criss Angel-like illusionist whose very appearance is a lie (watching him shed his stage wardrobe, jewelry, wigs, and facial hair as Charley attempts to interview him is very funny). Christopher Mintz-Plasse (2010's "Kick-Ass") affectingly brings a sadness to Ed, who feels abandoned by his best friend and yearns for an acceptance that could cost him his life, while newcomers Emily Montague, as the beautiful and imperiled Doris, and Sandra Vergara (sound-alike sister of Sofia), a sneaky comic delight as Peter's feisty girlfriend/assistant Ginger, make brief but memorable impressions. Finally, Toni Collette (2008's "Towelhead") essays a mom anyone would probably be happy to have, but her character of Jane is the one that is noticeably underwritten. After a superb sequence set on the desert highway just past the halfway point, she mostly disappears until the very end.

Taut jitteriness blended with savvy dark humor is not attempted often in the Hollywood studio system—usually it is preferred that a movie be either funny or scary, with no gray area in between—but "Fright Night" stands as a testament to how crowd-pleasing a concoction this can be. It's not too frightening and it doesn't go too silly, but the careful balance works. A moody, pounding score by Ramin Djawadi (2010's "Clash of the Titans") keeps the atmosphere high and sumptuous, while the make-up and effects, with a preference for savvy optical work over a bombardment of CGI, are top-notch. Even with one too many climaxes—a good ten minutes could have been cut from the finished film—the picture is the epitome of a fun, spooky, violent but not gross romp, harking back to the more innocent era and sensibilities of, for example, 1982's "Creepshow." This "Fright Night," like the one that came twenty-six years ago, knows precisely what it is, and how to do it.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman